Product warranties and guarantees — What we need to know

“Guarantee” sounds stronger than “warranty,” doesn’t it? (I always thought it was. I mean, we say we “guarantee” we’ll do something, right? We never warranty it.) When it comes to products, though, the words “warranty” and “guarantee” are usually used interchangeably. There are other definitions that are worth deciphering between, though, when it comes to understanding what kind of repair or replacement you can expect from a manufacturer or retailer when something goes wrong with a product. If you’re in the market for products that will last, products that are worth taking care of, a product warranty or guarantee is an important part of your purchase.

Always read a product’s warranty or guarantee before making a purchase. Some things to check on with any warranty or guarantee:

a red and black product warranty stamp reads "GUARANTEED: 30 days money back"

Who provides the product warranty or guarantee?

Check to see whether the warranty or guarantee is provided by the manufacturer or by the retailer you purchased the item from. If you buy a toaster at a discount store, and the warranty is provided by the manufacturer, you can’t bring it back to the store for a replacement when it quits toasting within the warranty period; you’ll need to send it back to the manufacturer. If the warranty is provided by the retailer, you can bring it back to the store. 

What happens if the product fails?

Will the company repair or replace the item, or will they refund you your money?

Exclusions

Warranties and guarantees sometimes have stipulations, such as excluding wear and tear or “misuse.” Some exclude certain parts and cover other parts. Sometimes labor is not included — and those costs can add up quickly. Other times mailing fees are excluded, and those can be major, especially if the item is large or heavy. 

“Consequential damages” are often (but not always) excluded. These would be incidental expenses incurred because of the failure of the item. So, for example, if your refrigerator breaks and the food inside goes bad, the company is not liable for the cost of the food. 

Limitations

A warranty or guarantee might state that the product is only covered if used as specified. If a printer is designated for personal use and is put in a busy office, for example, it might not be covered. 

hands with fingernails painted black writes in an open notebook

Be sure to return any paperwork that comes with the product for warranty or guarantee purposes. Sometimes, for example, you need to fill out and mail in a card to the manufacturer for their records. This record also ensures that you’ll be notified in case of a product recall.

It’s a good idea to save written warranties or guarantees, along with the purchase receipt for the product. You might file all of these in one place, or you might file them in with other paperwork for the purchase (with your manual for the stove, for example). 

Speaking of records, you might want to keep a list of warranties and guarantees in one place. A sheet that tallies the purchase date, product name, place of purchase, serial number of the product, and details about the warranty or guarantee (in a nutshell) of each product can come in very handy when something breaks down.

(We’ve created a Guarantees & Warranties Tracker to help you organize your info and have it ready if you need it. Get it free by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you’re already a subscriber, just type your subscriber email into the “Get it free” pop-up to download the Tracker.)

Here’s a list of the types of warranties or guarantees you’re likely to come across:

Full product warranty

A full warranty means that the manufacturer will repair or replace the item. Check to see what period is specified. It may be that they will repair or replace it within 30 days, or it may be that they’ll take care of it for life. Check the starting and expiration date of all warranties.

Full warranties are transferable and don’t require the consumer to pay fees (such as mailing costs). Full warranties also typically provide the choice of a full refund or replacement if repairs don’t work. 

Limited product warranty

This means that there are limitations on what the warranty or guarantee covers. For example, it may only cover product defects by the manufacturer, not your accidentally damaging the product by dropping it or misusing it. Limited warranties may not transfer and may not cover all costs, either. Check the limitations very carefully to know exactly what you are getting.

A red pencil tip beside the word "guarantee" on a written document

Lifetime product warranty

In theory, this means the product is covered for a lifetime. But read the fine print to find out if the “lifetime” applies to your lifetime (the original owner) or the product’s lifetime. The lifetime of the product is how long the manufacturer thinks the product should last or until the product is breaking down through normal use. 

Also check to see what is actually covered — what the estimated lifetime of the product is and what happens if it wears out. 

You may also have an obligation. For some lifetime warranties to stay in effect, the owner needs to maintain the product as directed. That might mean regular servicing or cleaning, for example. 

Sometimes a (stellar) manufacturer will offer something called a “full, no-quibble lifetime warranty.” This generally means that the manufacturer will replace or repair the item at any time, no questions asked. But again, read the fine print!

Extended Product Warranties

These are not really warranties; they’re service contracts that buyers purchase separately when they purchase an item. They are not included in the price of an item the way a warranty or guarantee is. Check these offers carefully. Look first to see what’s covered by the product’s warranty or guarantee; you don’t want to pay for service that’s already covered for free. Then weigh whether or not you think the product is likely to need repairs and what the repairs might cost if you were to pay out of pocket. Keep in mind that companies that offer extended warranties come out ahead for a reason. They are the ones likely to win the bet of how much you pay against how much they pay. If you are willing and able to pay for the security of “just in case,” though, you might consider purchasing an extended warranty.

Red tag that reads "BEST PRICE" in white letters

Implied Warranties

This is legal coverage that states enforce. It means that a product will perform as it should (an iron will get hot and a car will start, for example). This is a “warranty of merchantability.” A “warranty for fitness for a particular purpose” is another type of implied warranty, and it means that a product needs to meet the seller’s claim. If a puffer coat is advertised as “good down to minus 10 degrees F,” then it needs to meet that claim. 

The length of time for implied warranties is different in different states. Your state consumer protection office can tell you what the implied warranty coverage is in your state. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers some information on resolving disputes if you have problems with a warranty.

Do you check a product’s warranty or guarantee before purchase? (I’m trying to get in the habit!) Are you good at keeping track of the warranties and guarantees for your products? 

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